Judas and the Black Messiah Review
Shaka King’s sophomore film, Judas and the Black Messiah is a shocking, immersive and deeply meditative look into the life and assassination of Fred Hampton, a prominent member of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther party. Carried by three ravishing lead performances and competent filmmaking, King's second feature feels all too timely, revealing as much about our current times as it does inform us of a history not spoken nearly enough about.
LaKeith Stanfield plays William O’Neal, a small-time criminal who is offered a deal by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons); go to jail or become an FBI informant on the Black Panther party and Fred Hampton specifically. O’Neal weasels his way into Hampton’s inner circle, becoming his driver and ultimately part of his security team, all the while providing the FBI with information on the so-called Black Messiah. He begins to question his own loyalties and morals the deeper he goes.
Daniel Kaluuya, playing Hampton with unparalleled intensity, is mesmerising and captivating, almost to the point of it being a distraction. At times, King’s film plays like a musical, hopping from one intense, utopistic Kaluuya scene to another, failing to fill the parts between with something as energetic and memorable. Kaluuya’s ability to slip in and disappear into any role with unwavering commitment is always a wondrous thing to witness and his fiery presentation of Hampton here is magnetic and one of the actor’s best roles so far.
If Kaluuya is loud and intense, next to him is Stanfield, awkward and uncomfortable by comparison and purposely so. Hampton might be the heart of the story, but King’s interest lies equally in O’Neal and his inner turmoil and Stanfield brings him to life believably and with plenty of nuance, but his performance is often overshadowed by Kaluuya, who commands the screen whenever he’s on it. Stanfield does manage to hold his own and especially towards the end of the film, his performance is confident and heart-breaking. O’Neal’s arc is arguably the more interesting one as the line between an informant and a true Panther begin to blur, but just as this starts to happen, King pulls the narrative back into more traditional biopic and thriller territory.
While Judas and the Black Messiah is largely a two-man show, the rest of the cast is equally stacked. Plemons makes for an effortlessly menacing and unsettling and Martin Sheen shows up in rather hideous prosthetics to play J. Edgar Hoover, but it’s Dominique Fishback that leaves the biggest impression despite her small role as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s partner. Her role often feels like a typical suffering wife on the side lines type, but she also provides us a different look into the revolutionary Black Panther chairman – he is shy and reserved rather than bombastic and confident when he offers her a cup of coffee - and Fishback injects every second of her screen time with warmth and meaning.
Sean Bobbitt’s fluid camerawork supports King’s otherwise unfussy filmmaking choices. While the narrative takes some time to truly get going and for King to settle for a nice pace, Judas and the Black Messiah is constantly a thrilling watch. King, who wrote the script together with Will Berson, keeps reminding us of the stakes; not just for O’Neal, who risks torture and inevitable death if the Panthers find out he is an informant, but on a larger scale too. King devotes time to show Hampton’s Marxist idea, such as the rainbow coalition, although these feel rushed and never fully explained for viewers not familiar with them already, no doubt sending many straight to Wikipedia once the credits starts rolling.
Judas and the Black Messiah is at times a brutal, difficult watch, especially when it arrives to its inevitable finale, but also a deeply rich and rewarding one. It’s certainly an actor’s film; Kaluuya and Stanfield shine as men set for a tragic collision course with each other but the film also works as a fine ensemble piece. While Hampton’s story feels too big to be told in a mere two hours, King’s confident direction and the film's unfortunate thematic links to our own times make this an important, meaningful piece of cinematic history.
Judas and the Black Messiah is available on HBO Max February 12 and February 26 in the UK.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
Dir: Shaka King | Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, Lakeith Stanfield, Martin Sheen | Writers: Keith Lucas (story by), Kenneth Lucas (story by), Shaka King (screenplay by), Will Berson (Screenplay by)